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Corporate human rights abuses require stronger international and domestic legal regimes

The US government published in February 2009 its decision that it will not renew its contract with the private security corporation formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide. Such a decision comes as no surprise given the allegations of killing 17 civilians by Blackwater guards, coupled with the Iraqi government’s refusal to extend Blackwater’s operating license. This case, however, opens again a number of conundrums relating to legal accountability for corporations and its employees for human rights violations. In short, how do we provide effective legal remedies to victims for human rights violations by or involving corporations? This comment therefore briefly explores the weaknesses of the current framework for corporate accountability for human rights.

The international human rights regime is comprised of only complementary national legal systems. Beyond international human rights regimes, an important role is played by national legal systems and national courts. It appears that where corporations and their employees interfere with the human rights of individuals, complaint mechanisms are required to be employed to provide remedies for allegations. Judicial mechanisms, non-judicial mechanisms and internal corporate monitoring mechanisms can contribute to the effective responses to human rights violations by or involving corporations.

Lack of access to the legal orders is still the major obstacle to the enjoyment of individual human rights. The regulatory framework for corporate responsibility on the international level remains unclear. John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights recognizes [PDF file] that “judicial mechanisms are often under-equipped to provide effective remedies for victims of corporate abuse.” Enforcement of human rights functions best within the national legal order. Under the current normative framework, the best effective protection for human rights in relation to corporate conduct is for victims to rely on civil and criminal remedies in national legal orders. Although, human rights law insists on domestic human rights protection, this alone hardly seems a desirable stopping place. The current state of regulation is neither advancing the cause of protection and promotion of human rights, nor of the operation of an effective normative framework. A far more agreeable compromise would foster a normative framework which advances the promotion and protection of human rights and prevents human rights violations by or involving corporations.

Domestic remedies for redressing violations by or involving corporations must be therefore improved. National legal orders should introduce domestic legal mechanisms to redress the damage resulting from human rights violations by or involving corporations. It appears that corporations must be regulated by their home states, mainly developed countries. This is because large numbers of corporations operate in developing countries and also due to the institutional framework for regulating corporations. In this regard, a fully fledged set of judicial mechanisms and remedies should be established or improved. The international human rights regime should, however, offer a clear set of minimum standards on the human rights obligations of corporations. In sum, the construction of stronger international and national human rights regimes is needed to regulate the activities of corporations.

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